How Young Men Built a Violent Land

The Wild West and today's inner cities have much in common

Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City

By David Courtwright

Harvard University Press $346 pp., $29.95

Maybe the subtitle to this book should be "Billy the Kid Meets Gangsta Rapper Tupac Shakur."

David Courtwright's study of violence in America is just too interesting and readable to gather dust as another academic treatise.

"Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder From the Frontier to the Inner City" boldly crosses academic boundaries probing for the truth about violence in America from a number of angles. In the end, Courtwright finds biological, demographic, cultural, and social explanations for why America has been, and continues to be, a violent land.

Courtwright examines three questions - two obvious enough, and a third that sets the stage for his quite original insights and the more compelling arguments in his book: Who has been responsible for American violence? Why has there been so much of it? And why has it been so unevenly distributed?

The writing is no bloodless tome. Throughout, he interjects bits from letters, diaries, and memoirs, along with photos, cartoons, and sketches. Charts graphically portray violence and show the picture by sheer numbers alone.

His main argument is a deceptively simple syllogism: Young men are prone to violence. Throughout history, more than to any other nation, young men have been attracted to America. Thus, America became violent. Violence was a particularly remarkable feature of America's frontier in the 19th century, he argues, though its presence was uneven.

A quiet farming town might be positively tame, while a mining or cattle town might easily live up to the term "Wild West." In the 1880s and '90s, for example, Henderson County, Ill., had a homicide rate 25 times lower than Bodie, Calif.

The question of "where" aside, why was America so violent? The oft-discussed biological argument (young males have an innate tendency toward confrontation and aggression) gets a hearing here, but "American violence was not simply a gunfight at the XY corral," Courtwright says. Chromosomes are not destiny, per se.

Rather it was a convergence of a "surplus of young men, widespread bachelorhood, sensitivity about honor, racial hostility, heavy drinking, religious indifference, group indulgence in vice, ubiquitous armament, and inadequate law enforcement [that] were concentrated on the frontier."

Several chapters elaborate this theme, looking at life in mining towns, early Chinatowns, cowboy culture, and the precursor of today's homeless men, the somewhat-more-noble itinerant tramps.

Today's inner cities may look little like Western frontier towns, but from a historical and sociological point of view, they're direct descendants, Courtwright writes.

"Indeed, it is possible to think of the urban ghettos as artificial and unusually violent frontier societies - vice-ridden combat zones in which groups of armed, unparented, and reputation-conscious young bachelors, high on alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs, menace one another and the local citizenry, undeterred if not altogether untouched by an entropic justice system."

The Wild West, Courtwright says, was largely tamed by a change in demographics. The arrival of more women into the region resulted in marriages and families that had a "civilizing" effect. The situation in today's inner cities provides a troubling difference: The family unit has disintegrated for a variety of reasons, not solely because of a lack of women. Restoring a stronger sense of family life would alleviate much of the violence as it did in the Old West, Courtwright's research indicates, but the means of doing this are unclear.

He does not downplay calls for better economic opportunities, usually from the liberal side of the political spectrum, but emphasizes they will help only at the margins as they give young men something to live for, cutting the "number of 'zeros,' ghetto slang for men who have nothing to lose."

For Courtwright, "the key to controlling young men's violence and disorder lies not in the legislative process or in simply adding police and prisons but in society's basic familial arrangements, which means with all of us."

To the extent that government promotes the formation and unity of families, or at the least does not inhibit it, Courtwright's research suggests, it plays a useful role. But the problem, en total, may defy conventional approaches.

*Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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